This adventure started as a delightful daysail under nearly ideal conditions. The day before we had sailed in an 18-mile race from Fort Myers Beach, Florida, to Captiva Island aboard Nurdle, my Bristol 35.5. Conditions were typical for summer—light breeze, sunny, hot and humid. Though the course was twice shortened, we made poor headway against the current and abandoned the race, motoring from Sanibel Island to Captiva for the post-race party. Afterward most of my crew left for the mainland, leaving me with Sal, a new but enthusiastic sailor, and his girlfriend Brittni, who had even less experience, as crew for the sail back to Fort Myers Beach.
We got a late start the next morning and joked about how it was a great day for a race, with 10 to 12 knots of wind blowing slightly south of east. We started on a beam reach and hardened up as we followed the curve of Sanibel Island. Soon we were closehauled and were no longer hugging the beach. I lowered the centerboard so we could point higher.
I had noticed some clouds forming over the land, and soon they took on an ominous appearance. By the time we reached Knapp’s Point we were nearly a mile offshore, and the squall was clearly headed our way. I anticipated an initial blast of wind, then some heavy rain, and then expected the squall would ease as it passed. Sal and I reefed the main and rolled in about a third of our 135 percent genoa. As the squall approached, I suggested Brittni go below.
It hit with much more force than I expected. The wind shot up to 35 knots with gusts to 40 and veered into the south. A driving rain soon followed. Even with the genny reefed, we were overpowered, and the boat pitched madly with its rail awash. I eased the genoa sheet to relieve the motion, and Sal helped me roll in more of the sail. We couldn’t furl it by hand and made only slow progress with the furling line on a winch as the sail flapped about wildly. Finally we were done and started sheeting in the genoa again.
The furling line, which had been badly chafed while the sail was flogging, then suddenly let go. I’d never had a chafe problem here before, but I had recently replaced my standing rigging and had tightened the headstay to correct some mast bend. This brought the furling drum closer to the deck, and though I had readjusted the furling line’s lead blocks, the lead wasn’t perfectly fair. Now the genoa was completely deployed, its sheet was slack again, and the noise and pandemonium were dramatically increased.
Sal inquired if we were in trouble, and I told him we only needed to drop the sail. He would release its halyard, and I would gather it in. At Sal’s suggestion, I first put on my inflatable lifejacket/harness and clipped on before going forward. I then signaled for him to cast off the halyard, but the sail would not come down. Even after Sal eased its sheet some more, I was unable to pull it down more than a couple of feet.
Coming back to the cockpit, I now saw we were rapidly drifting to leeward. Sal volunteered to try hauling the sail down, and because he was younger and stronger, and because I lacked a better plan, I agreed. At this point, I still expected the wind and rain to soon subside. Sal went forward, but did no better than I, and by the time he came aft again we were quite close to land.
I tried the engine, and to my great relief it fired up promptly. I gave Sal the helm and told him to steer dead upwind. I went forward to try to furl the jib with the remaining furling line, but soon realized we had fallen off on starboard tack again. On returning to the cockpit, Sal informed me the motor had quit. A quick attempt at restarting it was unsuccessful.
Sal asked again if we were in trouble, and this time I answered, “Yes.” By now we were drifting into the idle-zone markers just 500 feet off the beach. We could not make headway or tack, and I saw our only chance was to gybe around and parallel the beach on a broad reach. I put the helm hard over, knowing it was a one-chance situation. There would be no room for a second try.
Nurdle turned rapidly, and fortunately the rig withstood the tremendous force of the gybe. Now on port tack, we were able to make some headway away from the beach. Sal later informed me he felt the centerboard hit bottom before we gybed, although with the boat’s wild motion, I was not aware of it.
We now tried again to get the jib down and found its luff tape had pulled completely out of the groove in the foil. The jib came down more easily, but quickly blew out of my grasp and fell into the water to leeward, held to the forestay only at its head and tack. The boat sailed over the sheet, and the clew was now held below the water, tight on the port side. Sal and I tried pulling the sail in to starboard, but the force was too great.
With a plan in mind, I told Sal to raise the centerboard. He reported it would not come all the way up. It would have to be enough, I told him. I then released the genoa’s head and tack shackles, and the sail promptly disappeared over the rail, reappearing free to windward just as I had hoped. Hauling it in on the sheet took some effort, but the sail was soon on deck. We were now out of immediate danger, but could make only limited progress to windward.
Sal by now was fairly incapacitated with seasickness and went below. Brittni had also felt sick, but had recovered somewhat and came to sit in the cockpit. The wind was down to about 20 knots and the rain had let up, but the chop was still nasty. I felt ill as well and had thrown up while getting the jib down.
I went below to see about the engine. It turned over rapidly, but would not fire. I found the fuel filter nearly empty and filled it with a small bottle of clean fuel I keep handy. It still would not start, and I realized the whole fuel system needed bleeding. With the motion below and the smell of the fuel, I knew this was beyond me and agreed with Brittni’s suggestion to call for a tow. I tried calling several times on the handheld VHF without success.
Then the centerboard started banging around. I tried to crank it in more, but the pennant broke, and then there was silence. I guessed the board had fallen out of the boat, so noted our GPS position for a later retrieval attempt. The boat’s sailing ability did not seem impaired and a quick check showed no flooding in the bilge. After a short rest, Sal and I were able to hoist our 110 percent working jib.
With a smaller jib and less wind, we tacked and made back the ground we had lost, and sailed home without further mishap. I later discovered the centerboard had actually broken off, leaving a 2-foot stub. Repairs are underway, and I am thankful at least we did not lose the boat that day.
John Churchill built his first boat, which did not float, at age eight. Since then, he has cruised offshore and near shore and now races Nurdle in Florida
What We Did Right
I saw the storm coming and shortened sail in preparation.
I was confident in my boathandling skills and took decisive action by heading toward the beach to gybe on to port tack.
When the jib was in the water, I correctly perceived how to retrieve it. It was stained with bottom paint, but otherwise suffered no damage.
What We Did Wrong
I did not safeguard my crew. When Sal suggested I put on a lifejacket to go to the foredeck, I ought to have insisted that he and Brittni don them, too.
I failed to maintain situational awareness. I was so focused on dealing with the genoa I didn’t notice how quickly we were drifting toward the beach. We should have gybed when we had more room.
I did not have enough fuel in the tank. I usually keep just a few gallons in it so it stays fresh, but the violent motion sloshed the fuel away from the pickup line, which resulted in fuel starvation.
The boat was inadequately rigged. I was aware of the poor furler-line lead, had planned to fix it, but put it off. I had also taken out the second reef line on the main due to the light conditions the day before and had not re-reeved it.
Illustration by Jan Adkins
Photo by John Churchill
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